Friday, August 15, 2008

Spotlight on UiTM - The Issues

After focusing on the UiTM VC previously, I want to touch on the issues highlighted by this recent controversy.

Let's step away from the politics of the statement and examine the its implications. If the VC and some of the UiTM students want to maintain UiTM as a mono-ethnic institution, then they have to consider the following. They should abandon any pretense of trying to achieve a 'world class' status university. Not that this was achievable in the first place anyways. But there is no university in the world that comprise of only one ethnic group and can be considered anywhere close to first class. Furthermore, it's not as if UiTM selects the best and the brightest among the Malays / Bumiputeras in the first place. My understanding is that it's pretty easy to get in, as long as you are a Malay / Bumi. Being mono-ethnic and being non selective, this VC and others following in his footsteps should just give up the pretense of trying to build a 'world class' university.

I've not thought about this issue from this angle since I always assumed that one of the main pillars surrounding university life was the pursuit of scholarship in the midst of diversity, not just in terms of ideas but also amidst people of different ethnic groups, income levels, etc... The idea that a university can call itself as such but reserve its places totally for students of one ethnic group just belies belief in some sense. We've always had ethnic quotas in our public universities but there was always ethnic diversity. Walk into any university in the US, from the best like Harvard to some which have never been heard of in Malaysia, or go to any university in any developed country, you'll see students of different ethnicities and nationality.

For our Malay / Bumi readers who disagree with Khalid's suggestion, try to answer this question - Name me one other university in any country, developed or developing, where the students are of only one ethnicity. If you want to argue semantics in that UiTM comprises more than one ethnic group (Malays and the different Bumiputera groups in Sabah and Sarawak), then do this - name me one other university in any country, developed or developing, which does not allow members of a certain race entry into that university.

You had this kind of policy in the American South before desegregation and you had this kind of policy in apartheid South Africa. But now in South Africa, the only other country in the world that practices affirmative action for the majority population, universities are totally desegregated and there are no universities which are reserved only for the black population.

In other words, Malaysia is probably the only country in the world which restricts citizens of a certain race (in this care, more than one race) from applying and gaining entry into one of its universities (or in effect, the entire UiTM system).

In this light, one might even say that UiTM does not even fulfill the conventional understanding of what a university is, at least not by international standards.

Let's take this a step further. Let's say that 10% of the places in UiTM are opened up to non-Malays. What is the likelihood that these places will be snapped up in a hurry? My sense is that they will not. 10% of the places in the MARA colleges were opened up to non-Malays a few years back and indications are that this quota is nowhere near being filled. There are just too many options for non-Malays out there these days. The many public unis, the private colleges, the many twinning programs etc... makes UiTM probably one of the last places that they would want to go. If this is the case, then the argument that non-Malays would be somehow 'stealing' the places of Malays does not stand. In any case, the options for Malay students in terms of universities are probably more than that of the non-Malays. It is not as if a Malay / Bumi student who fails to get into UiTM will not have the option of going to another public uni.

This is not to say that I agree that Khalid's suggestion will necessarily solve the problem which he identified. His reasoning was that by allowing non-Malays and international students to gain entry into UiTM, this would increase the standards of UiTM as well as giving the opportunity for the Malay / Bumi students in UiTM to mix with students of other ethnic groups and hence be more exposed to the world and can have better career prospects.

This might be a nice ideal to have but I suspect that allowing non-Malays and internationals to gain entry into UiTM will neither improve the standards of education in UiTM nor will it necessarily be better for the Malay / Bumi students in terms of exposure. After all, UM, USM and UKM, probably the top three public unis in Malaysia are ethnically mixed but this has not prevented the standards there from dropping over the past few decades. And there is not guarantee that the current situation of de facto racial segregation in our public unis will not be replicated in UiTM if non-Malays are allowed in.

UiTM needs much more than just allowing non-Malays entry if it wants to improve itself. There needs to be wholesale structural re-arrangement is this is to happen.

Ultimately, the losers from this whole episode will likely to be the UiTM students. The other public unis, especially the research universities - UM, USM, UKM, UPM - are moving forward and trying to be more open. If there is going to be any improvement in our universities, it is likely to start with these public universities and not UiTM, especially given that it has a VC who is an UMNO 'lifer' and an ITM 'lifer'.

P.S. I think that another negative side effect of this episode is that some non-Bumi employers might discriminate, implicitly or explicitly, against UiTM graduates, exacerbating the already serious problem about unemployed UiTM graduates.

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